Controversy over cotton centerpiece at Tennessee university dinner

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – It started as a welcome gesture for a group of black students at a Nashville university, but what happened during a dinner with the school’s president left some with a bad taste in their mouth.

Race relations are taking center stage at Lipscomb University. It’s not because of a class, or a lecture, but rather a dinner that went from cordial to controversial.

The centerpiece on the table was supposed to represent the fall, but the stalks of cotton didn’t sit well with some students.

Deion Sims was at the dinner last Thursday at the home of President Dr. Randy Lowry so he could hear their concerns and what the university could do better, but he and others took offense to what was on the center on the tables–and what was on the menu as well.

“I think the most offensive thing was the cotton centerpieces,” Sims said.

(Photo: Submitted)

He went on to say, “At the dinner, we had heard previously from Latino students they had fajitas and then when we got there it was collard greens, cornbread and ribs and such.”

Sims, a senior pre-med major said Dr. Lowry has done some great things for the university, but more needs to be done.

“I don’t think Dr. Lowry was intentional or malicious in the cotton centerpieces. I think it points to a larger culture gap at this institution and that points to some changes that need to be made,” the student explained.

Lowry took full responsibility for the centerpieces, even though he didn’t choose them personally.

“I understand, at least at a small level, the offense and the hurt, and I think as a Christian my obligation is to take responsibility and be accountable,” Lowry said.

Some black students took to social media and said they were highly offended. A student said the president’s initial response was, “’It isn’t inherently bad if we’re all wearing it,’ and walked off.”

The president said looking back things could have been handled differently.

“Cotton is rather neutral. God created it for all of us,” Lowry said. “The use of it there was offensive when one puts it in the context of the history they were thinking about. Because of that, I apologized the next day.”

Now the president is focused on putting the past behind him and moving forward.

“We will take this particular difficult moment and we will recognize in a crisis there is danger, there is opportunity, and we will try through lengthy conversation to have an airing of people’s concerns,” he said.

Dr. Lowry said in the 13 years of him being president the diversity of students has increased from 4 percent to 23 percent, numbers he’ll put up against any university in the state.

Late Monday afternoon, the Diverse Student Coalition, an organization hoping to make the university more welcoming and inclusive to all students, met on campus.

“We also need to make this an environment where they feel comfortable and you have an institution that is run by all-white majority male students, then you’re going to run into things like this,” Sims told News 2.

Lowry said there was no malice in serving the dinner; in fact, he says it was the same menu served at his mother-in-law’s birthday dinner a week before. He noted he plans on meeting with students individually and in small groups to address their concerns.